The answer is simple: both are in the same field focused on older adults, but they serve different functions.
Geriatrics focuses on the health of the aging body, and Gerontology is a field of study and practice that includes the physical, mental and social aspects of aging. Geriatrics is actually a subset of Gerontology since Gerontology takes a broader perspective.
Geriatrics and Gerontology both started over a century ago, and each led to the popularity of the other.
Early Century Medicine
Gerontology was first attributed to Nobel Laureate, Elie Metchnikoff who first used it in 1903. Geriatrics emerged in 1909 by Ignatz Nascher who said: “to cover the same field in old age that is covered by the term pediatrics in childhood…” That created the subset of Gerontology as a field of study and practice known as Geriatrics, encompassing the medical aspects of longevity.
Geriatrics and Gerontology have both led to an increased life expectancy, giving older adults a new lease on life, later in life. Since 1860, life expectancy in the United States rose from 39.4 years to 78.9 in 2020. As life expectancy increased due to a number of factors, the idea that people could live healthy and productive lives in their “old age” became an increasingly popular trend. Rather than accepting the inevitability of poor health in later years, interest grew in the study of health and wellbeing for older adults.
The Popularity of Geriatrics
With the rise of human life expectancy, and the increase of the aging population, doctors began to agree that health issues associated with age could be treated in a new and different way.
Familiar examples are:
Geriatrics focuses on the health of the aging body and emphasizes the fact that seniors don’t have to suffer physically in their later years. It uses a comprehensive medical team and approach to treatment that strives to improve quality of life.
The doctors who practice in this field are called “geriatricians.” Geriatricians are doctors from many specialties who have received supplementary training to treat older patients. They can practice in various settings such as hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and outpatient clinics.
Often geriatricians are internal medicine doctors who work with other healthcare professionals to coordinate care for patients with multiple health issues. Their training also allows them to provide guidance on medications. Unfortunately, aging patients often take a large number of medicines, and a geriatrician can help to create an ideal medication program.
Gerontology Emerges in Healthcare
Gerontology has evolved over the years, and it progressed to the point that geriatrics needed healthcare coordinators and patient advocates, expanding the concept to encompass the social determinants of health; the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes.
Gerontology has evolved to cover these additional areas:
Mental health treatment of older adults, that was based in science, has a long history, involving very famous historical medical figures. In the 1800s, Sigmund Freud was one of several doctors that explored the mental health issues of older patients. In 1906, Alois Alzheimer first presented his findings on the neurodegenerative disease that eventually bore his name. This led to a large body of study on dementia and related illnesses.
Also in 1906, German psychiatrist and neurologist Robert Gaupp wrote that most mental illness later in life was not related to dementia. This resulted in decades of research aimed at helping older patients suffering from depression and other mental and emotional issues.
Although Geriatrics kicked off the overall Gerontology trend, studying the physical aspects of aging has broadened into many areas. Research in dementia, stroke, and cancer has revealed more profound insights into the relationship between age and disease.
Gerontology has also led to rehabilitative treatment for older adults, and physical, speech, and occupational therapies are common rehabilitation methods for older patients. These types of interventions are a crucial part of regaining quality of life.
Social and Economic Effects
The 65 years and older population has increasingly grown over years. In 1960, those over 65 made up 9% of the U.S. population. By 2020, it made up 17%, and by 2050 it is expected to grow to 22%.
Currently, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every single day in the United States. Most have noted that the introduction of Gerontology and Geriatrics have played major roles in extending the lives of seniors. Evidence of this can be seen in Social Security and Medicare programs.
Older adults have always been political, using their life experiences to make political choices. This aged demographic are more likely to vote compared to other younger groups. They also constitute a powerful lobbying force through such organizations as AARP and LeadingAge.
Gerontology has also led to the boom of skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) and senior living communities. For generations, in most societies and many cultures to this day, older adults were cared for by their families. Communal care settings for the elderly had their beginnings as far back as the Middle Ages in Europe. In the 1800s, charitable institutions in Europe and the United States were the precursors of today’s senior living facilities.
The number of nursing homes grew exponentially, and as they grew, the living conditions became abysmal. In the 1920s, some states began to institute rudimentary licensing programs. This grew to today when most senior living facilities have stringent regulatory oversight. Gerontological ideas also paved the way for more varieties of senior living like assisted living, hospice, and the concept of dedicated senior living communities.
The Legacy of Geriatrics and Gerontology
Advances in medicine and senior living conditions have led to increasingly better lives for older adults. Through Geriatrics and Gerontology, older adults now have access to the basic care and medical treatment they need to live long, healthy lives.
Individual geriatric care planning and coordination at Conscious Aging Solutions
If a loved one or a person you are working with needs help with any geriatric care planning or coordination, then we would be delighted to have a conversation with you directly about how we can help.